The Courier-Mail
Bedford’s retrospective
January 11, 2008

Quoted from article:

It was sheer chance that the indigenous artist Paddy Bedford’s work became known.

In 1988 when Tony Oliver, the chief executive officer of the Jirrawun Aboriginal Art Corporation, went to visit his friend Chocolate Thomas at Turkey Creek in the Northern Territory, he happened to glance into a darkened room. Discarded works painted on cardboard and laminex lay on the floor, destined for the rubbish tip. He was struck by the power and simplicity of the works.

Thomas explained that the paintings were “blackfella teachings” and “dreamings” of an old man from Bedford Downs, who happened to be outside.

Oliver told Bedford: “You’re a genius like Picasso “ go and paint some more.” And the artist obliged.

Now these paintings, collectively called “The Primal Scene”, form part of a travelling retrospective showing at The University of Queensland Art Museum.

First shown at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art at the end of 2006, the retrospective was acclaimed by critics. John McDonald wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “If one had to choose a single indigenous artist to represent the state of Aboriginal art, it would be hard to go past Paddy Bedford, or Goowoomji, as he is known among his own people.”

Bedford’s work is now included in collections at the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. And he was one of eight indigenous Australian artists chosen to create an artwork for the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

At an auction at Sotheby’s last December in Sydney, Bedford’s painting Lerndijwaneman “ Lightning Creek fetched $120,000.

Unfortunately the artist died at the end of last year. But he was around long enough to see his work receive the accolades it deserved.

At the opening of the retrospective, Bedford determinedly left his wheelchair at the door and proudly walked into the exhibition.

Curator of the retrospective, Russell Storer, says that although Bedford didn’t start working on canvas until he was 84, he painted as part of ceremony all his life.

“As an elder, it was his responsibility to pass on the stories. That community had used boards, masonite and bits of wood since the 1970s. They used them in Gurirr Gurirr ceremonies. They had a very simple motif, which told a particular story, and they were held on their shoulders.”

Bedford’s works show large fields of flat colour, with white dots used to create structures within them. His paintings depict specific stories from the Dreaming, enmeshed with the topography of the land he had regularly ridden over as a stockman.

Storer says: “He expressed his deep knowledge of the land, and used his memory. Each painting is a re-enactment of that connection to country . . . There is an extraordinary consistency to his work “ he painted over 600 paintings, and he wouldn’t paint the same way twice.”

In many ways the life of Paddy Bedford encapsulated the sad history of black and white relations during the 20th century.

A Gija man of Jawalyi skin, Bedford was born in 1922 on Bedford Downs station, in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. He was named after the station owner, Paddy Quilty.

Two years before Paddy was born, Quilty had told several male relatives of Paddy Bedford to cut down some trees, and then poisoned the men with strychnine, before burning their bodies. This was in retribution for the killing of a dairy cow on land that was once theirs.

Art journalist Jeremy Eccles wrote that Bedford had told him: “That Quilty was only a little bad; he only did it once.”

Not surprisingly, the old man refused point-blank to see Quilty’s grave in Wyndham when the opportunity arose, and said: “Why should I go see that old bastard?”

But the murders perpetrated by Quilty were only a single incident among many, and Bedford’s parents fled the killings to a nearby government refuge, where conditions were harsh.

Several years later they were persuaded to return to their homeland to work for rations.

In his late teens Bedford was sent away to a leprosarium in Derby, although he didn’t have leprosy. There he met Emily Watson, and they married and had two daughters, Kathy and Theresa, who were later taken to the Beagle Bay mission station.

Returning to Bedford Downs in the 1950s, Bedford worked as a stockman, which included driving cattle once a year to Wyndham. During one of these drives he was injured when a horse fell on him “ he complained that after that he couldn’t dance as well as he had.

In 1969 the decision to pay indigenous stockmen equal wages to their white counterparts resulted in mass sackings, and, unlike many other stockmen who drank their way to an early death, Bedford found work with the West Australian main roads department, shifting rocks, until he was forced to stop through injury.

After meeting Tony Oliver at the Jirrawun arts group, Bedford was unstoppable.

“He was incredibly prolific in a short space of time,” Storer says.

Although Storer met Bedford only towards the end of his life, and the artist’s English wasn’t great: “He was a man with great warmth and a sense of humour. He was a real storyteller.

“When he came down to Sydney to the opening, he was just thrilled to see all his works again. For him, it was like seeing his family again.”